Thursday, 1 May 2008

Up or Out - the attitude for contractors

I've just read the article Up or Out on The Daily WTF. This is related to/based on Bruce Webster's article Wetware crisis: Dead Sea effect. They provide a fascinating look into the culture of the skilled IT workforce as it pertains to over-zealous attempts at retaining skilled workers.

So I got to thinking about how that applied to myself, and my past experience in IT. I've worked both as an employee and, recently, as a contractor - and I've certainly noticed the difference in attitude between the two.

I believe that contractors automatically have this "up or out" mentality. They know that their required skills are wide and varied, and that to keep ahead of the game, they need to keep their skill-level up. Staying in one job for a long term leads (eventually) to skill-stagnation. Not because the company no longer has anything to teach a contractor, but because of a case of diminishing returns.

As the article states, any skilled worker can learn a lot more by exposing themselves to new opportunities, than by sticking with a single firm. However, contractors seem to be far more aware of this fact than long-term employees (even the skilled ones). Contractors seem to have learned the lesson that current and diverse skills are marketable, and that in-house knowledge of a specific system, while beneficial to keeping a specific job, doesn't lead to expansion of a skill-set. This leads contractors to constantly push themselves to try new and different things to stay ahead of the game - to keep themselves a marketable commodity.

Employers don't seem to have kept up with this understanding. The majority of employers look poorly on hiring contractors (except for specific skills lacking in-house), compared with potential long-term employees. Contractors fall foul of the attitude mentioned in the article - the feeling that contractors are just "dating around" and aren't serious about their committment. This despite the fact that employers are no longer loyal towards employees (a job is no longer a career-for-life).

So are contracters flighty or are they simply being honest? We know that our skills improve by varied experience. Stagnating in a single shop isn't good for us *or* for the company - yet we constantly get the look-down-the-nose treatment as though we are far more unreliable than their indentured employees.

Workers and companies both benefit from fresh-blood. There is definitely a balance involved here - continual turnover can make it impossible to keep hold of institutional knowledge (which is why documenting procedures is so important!), but a company without fresh-blood will stagnate and lose market-share due to a lack of new and innovative insights coming into the company. Any firm can benefit from a good mix of the two. The fact that contractors have accepted and embraced this fact should be a sign of maturity, rather than flightiness.

I especially dislike that skeptical tone that comes with with the phrase "oh, so you're *not* interested in long-term employement". I feel I'm simply being realistic. But employers (and recruitment agencies) that employ the tone seem to imply I'm being disloyal... or committment-phobic. Neither of which is the case.

A few rare cases even seem to imply that I'm simply being greedy - shopping around for a better cash-deal, which is far from the case. While I'll take a higher salary over a lower one, I'm far more motivated by an interesting project and an opportunity to learn. That's why I'm in Rails rather than many other technologies that pay well. I would never take a higher salary just to do something that was mind-numbingly boring and, in my mind, dead-end. I'm just stoked that I get to work in a field that is cutting edge *and* well paid at the same time ;)

I have no problem with sticking around with a group that values me and that contributes to my own experience. My current contract (with SIRCA) has lasted more than a year. I fully believe that I have added value to this project. I also have learned a great deal. I have also had smaller contracts where I have provided some chunk of functionality or code-review - each of which added visible benefit to the site I worked upon, and also provided an opportunity for me to learn some new aspect of the technology I work with. This is an equal-footing relationship - where both parties receive value.

My previous employment has included roles in which I felt my input was not valued, and in which I had no mentor from which to learn. Effectively I was gaining no value from them, and they were not gaining full value from me either. I stuck around for a long time trying to help out with the project - and eventually left due to burn-out. In hindsight I should have left far earlier and moved on somewhere that I had an opportunity to grow, and that valued the insights I was able to bring. It would have been a better opportunity for me - and the company I was with could have employed somebody that they would have felt comfortable with - increasing their return-on-investment as well.

In a free market - there's no point in sticking with a relationship that is not valuable, or which provides value only to one party or the other. I won't leave for reasons of greed or lack of committment - I'll only leave if you and I are no longer gaining enough value for the professional relationship to be worthwhile.

If an employer doesn't feel that this is reasonable - then we need a good talk on the concept of "fairness".

Healthy economic relationships come about when both parties benefit. Anything else doesn't make economic sense. When the benefit to one or the other fades over time, then it should be understood that this will lead to the eventual ending of the relationship. It's simply a matter of good business practice - and shouldn't be looked on as "lack of committment" any more than moving to a cheaper/more efficient supplier.

</whinge> :)

Update: Bruce Webster has written a follow-on article: some thoughts on up or out which gives a few ideas on how to avoid developer-churn or the Dead-sea effect (and even counteract the thermocline of truth) by providing a non-managerial track for techies to follow. I completely agree. If there was a way "up" that didn't involve "out" I'd go for it!


Mike Wolfson said...

Very well written article, which sums up my experience as a contractor. As a high paid contractor, it is very important to me that I feel my employer is getting their "money's worth". Sometimes, company culture gets in the way of how effective I can be.

I will always take a lower paying, interesting project, over a higher-paying boring project.

Lastly, I wanted to point out that I am interested in taking positions where I can learn new skills, and enhance my skillset. This isn't related to building my resume, or marketability, but more related to my personality. I am the type of person who continually likes new challenges, and consider myself a life long learner. I think this is a common trait among developers, and needs to be embraced by employers. Providing a stimulating work environment, that fosters employee development will go a long way towards increasing developer satisfaction (and retention).

Thanks for the thought provoking post. It sums up my feelings on being a Java contractor very well.

Taryn East said...

Hi Booger, thanks for the great comments.

I'd definitely agree that I have an inbuilt desire for challenge. I too am a life-long learner, both in my professional and personal life. Programming provids an excellent outlet for that as it's endlessly fascinating. Not all problems are interesting, but there is so much scope that you can usually find something to match your talents and stretch your boundaries a little.

I've too-frequently come across an employer attitude that learning new stuff is "alright on your own time, but you shouldn't be using company resources"... which is so short-sighted! It's clearly in the best interests of both parties to continually improve your knowledge.

This article focussed on the business-side of this particular equation, but I'm not denying there's a strong personal element involved too!

You are certainly correct that it's a common trait for developers.

Switched-on employers will cater to that if they want to attract the best employees. It's one reason why places like Google and FogCreek are so attractive to the rock-star developers ;)

It's also why so much of the top-talent go into business for themselves... if you can't guarantee that an employer will give it to you, then take control of your own destiny!